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Could an earthquake disaster happen in Germany?

The Local Germany
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Could an earthquake disaster happen in Germany?
Buildings lie in tatters in the Marrakesh region of Morocco following a disastrous earthquake on September 8th, 2023. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AP | Mosa'ab Elshamy

Thousands of people have tragically lost their lives in Morocco in an earthquake catastrophe that has shocked the world. What's the likelihood of earthquakes on a similar seismic scale happening in Germany?

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Pictures emerging from the earthquake-hit region of Morocco show the scale of the impact: whole villages in the area have been destroyed, buildings have crumbled to dust, and an estimated 2,000 people have so far lost their lives in the natural disaster.

When the tragedy struck on September 8th, the rumblings of the earthquake were felt across the water in Portugal.

Some parts of Morocco - mostly notably the Atlas Mountains - are a well-known epicentre for earthquakes. Located on the border between two of the tectonic plates that make up the earth's crust, the collisions between these plates can cause tremors of various intensities that can even spread out into the surrounding regions. 

An earthquake hitting an intensity of 5.0 or more on the magnitude scale can cause damage to buildings. In Morocco, the recent earthquake in the Marrakesh-Safi region was measured at 6.8.

In Germany, meanwhile, violent movements of these tectonic plates are seemingly rare - though there is one region that is at higher risk of earthquakes than elsewhere. 

READ ALSO: How flash floods left a trail of destruction in western Germany

Baden-Württemberg at risk

In the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg - another mountainous region - the risk of earthquakes is higher than elsewhere in the country. 

That's because there are several fissures in the earth's crust in this part of Germany that could experience collisions, which then cause quakes in the ground.

"The fact that the earth shakes is therefore actually part of everyday life in Baden-Württemberg," Martin Hensch from the State Earthquake Service (LED), which is part of the Freiburg Regional Council, told the Südkurier newspaper.

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However, these are so minor that they generally aren't felt at all. 

The LED has a comprehensive network of earthquake measuring stations that tracks earthquakes and their intensity. According to them, these imperceptible earthquakes happen several times a day, while small and lightly traceable earthquakes happen around once a month.

Every decade or so, meanwhile, an earthquakes happens on a scale that can cause damage to buildings and disrupt business activities in a wider regional area.

When was the largest recent earthquake?

Most recently, around 150 residents living in the region around Lake Constance registered an earthquake using the LED's online platform. According to experts, this quake had a magnitude of around 2.9.

Earlier in June, multiple districts registered an earthquake with a magnitude higher than three.

A worker at the LED measures the force of an earthquake in Germany.

A worker at the LED measures the force of an earthquake in Germany. Photo: picture-alliance/ dpa | Rolf Haid

The largest earthquake in (relatively) recent memory is the 1911 earthquake that occurred in the Swabian Alps in southern Germany. An intensity of 5.8 was measured at the time and the quake caused structural damage to around 6,250 buildings.

Since then, building regulations have been adapted to ensure that buildings are better able to withstand these natural events. 

How likely are major earthquakes in Germany?

According to LED's Martin Hensch, large-scale earthquakes are incredibly unlikely in Germany. 

"Earthquakes occur most frequently and most strongly worldwide at the borders between tectonic plates," he told DPA.

Under Baden-Württemberg, however, there are no direct plate borders - and the same applies elsewhere in Germany. Instead, the country lies on the Eurasian plate - a good way north of the plate boundary.

READ ALSO: New disaster warning system rolled out across Germany

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Nevertheless, Hensch points out that there are some weak zones in the Upper Rhine, Constance and Zollernalb regions of Baden-Württemberg. Here, earthquakes can occur as a result of pressure on the Eurasian plate by the neighbouring African plate.

"Strong earthquakes with catastrophic effects are very rare in Baden-Württemberg, but they cannot be ruled out," said Hensch.

However, an earthquake like the one now in Morocco has never been recorded in the southwest and is difficult to imagine.

Ultimately, however, such enormous outlier events are impossible to predict. 

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